I don’t ever remember getting the call. I don’t remember what they told us on the way there. All I remember is being hurried through to a back room of some regional Russian airport and then waiting.
You’ll have to forgive me, a lot of this story is blurry. See, when a Russian offers you vodka, you must accept. Now, I’m not one to turn down a free drink regardless of international diplomacy, but in early 2007, I was especially eager to improve the image of Americans abroad, which, at the time, was “Jabba the Hut wearing a cowboy hat screeching, ‘WHY DON’T YOU TALK ENGLISH.’”
I asked our translator when we’d be arriving in Sochi, and he just smiled and shook his head. He said goodbye, wished me luck and safety, and left. My two lead producers, Eric—a charming little schmoozer whose habit of partying like he was still in college never got in the way of his work—and Debbie—a depressing, oblivious lump who hyphenated her three-syllable-long maiden name to her husband’s three-syllable-long surname even though they rhymed—were called over to a corner to talk with Vlad, our fixer. When shooting a show abroad, it pays to have a local on your team to navigate the sea of con men wearing official uniforms, and Vlad, an imposing scowl of a man almost certainly ex-KGB, was as good as you could get. The conversation was in heated whispers, short angry bursts of air punctuated by flailing arm gestures.
Eric, visibly shaking off the news, approached me.
“The Russians gave away our fucking hotel rooms to the IOC. There’s not a goddamn room left in all of Sochi.”
I stuttered a bit before I could even get out a “Wait, what? Where are we—”
“Oh don’t worry,” he sneered. “They’ve got a plan for us. They’re sending us to Chechnya.”
At this point, my only knowledge of Chechnya was a vague recollection of that Moscow-theater-hostage crisis—you know, the one where, like, 50 Chechen rebels stormed a theater, and the Russians unceremoniously gassed the shit out of everyone, killing 150 people? Yeah, that one. As we made preparations to board the small twin-engine jet, I had no idea what we were getting into. For all I knew, Chechnya was a full-on war zone. Rumors started swirling that the last American to set in foot in Chechnya was sent home in a body bag, some AP reporter who got herself exploded at a soccer game. This was NOT what I signed up for. We weren’t there to shoot Restrepo, we were there to produce a beauty pageant.
I should’ve mentioned that earlier: A. Beauty. Pageant. Look, we all know that in most developed countries with an abundance of entertainment options, beauty pageants are a rarely televised punch line. But in places with a tenuous grasp on the word freedom, beauty pageants are still a big deal. But, apparently, the Olympics is a bigger deal, seeing as the government had just yoinked 50-some hotel rooms from us and handed 'em over to the IOC. (I mean, I guess their strategy worked: they did win the Olympic bid, after all.)
The flight lands and we are immediately met on the tarmac by press. I had a few more drinks on the plane, and was completely unprepared for anything. I knew practically nothing of the tragedy the residents of the Caucasus call life. So, somewhere tucked away in their tape room, a Russian news station has footage of me being an asshole. A journalist accosted me and I didn’t know what to say, so I panicked and said the first dumb thing that came to mind.
Her: “Sir! Sir! Do you know what is happening to the people? What are you doing here? Why are you here?”
Me: [sigh] “My album just dropped and I have the worst fucking PR team.”
In the bathroom of the completely deserted airport, as I’m taking a piss and chatting with my cameraman, some Borat type popped out of one of the stalls. “Oh, wow! No way, Yankee cowboy motherfucker! Dude! A real American!”
This turned out to be Armen, my translator and self-proclaimed “best fucking friend!” He cursed a lot because he learned English from “classic American movie films Quentin Tarantino and Snatch!” He informed me that weren't in the Chechen airport in Grozny, the capital city, because “it blowed up still!” We were, in fact, in the “lawless province of Ingushetia.”
We piled into a caravan of black SUVs with one-way mirrored glass, each SUV driven by an armed Kadyrovsty (President Kadyrov’s paramilitary thugs: think Hitler’s Brown Shirts) with a translator in the passenger seat, and two to three crew members and beauty queens in the back. We tore ass down the middle of the only road to Grozny. Roughly every hundred yards or so along the side of the road was a uniformed soldier, AK-47 slung over his shoulder, saluting us from beside a bonfire. I asked Armen if the fire was to keep the soldiers warm—it was February in Russia after all—and he just laughed.
“Of course not, my man! Dude! It is to smoke-screen you from rebels!”
We pulled into Grozny, through makeshift military bunkers, past an abandoned amusement park, and into the center of the city. There, we were met by what must be every person living in Grozny. Hundreds of people, some dressed in ceremonial garb, complete with ornate swords, all there just to greet us. A majority of the onlookers became obsessed with Snip and Snap, our choreographers, who are black and are twins. It was explained to us that the majority of the townspeople had never seen a black person, which explained why kids kept rubbing Snip and Snap’s faces, then looking at their hands, incredulous as to why the “mud” wouldn't come off.
Over the next two days, we get whisked around the city. We took a tour of the only school and ate at one of the only restaurants. When asked what we wanted to eat, Eric and I responded with “Lamb? Chicken? Whatever you normally eat.” Debbie interrupted us, demanding McDonald's. Eric and I couldn’t hold back our laughter. Our guide was flummoxed. “Mick Donn Allds? What animal is that?” We were also treated to a performance of the Chechen Children’s Dance Troupe. It’s there we met Chechnya’s biggest celebrity: a teenager with a lazy eye who moved us all to tears with his sorrowful performance. Before we left, he implored me to “return to Hollywood and say hi to Los Angeles best friend Eddie Murphy. He know me.”
On our last day in Chechnya, our executive producer Howard finally arrived. Howard is what I assume every producer in Hollywood was like in 1976, a mix between Neil Diamond and Robert Evans with a gold Star of David necklace intertwined in a forest of gray chest hair. We’re told we have a very special lunch awaiting us before we leave.
We were driven to the middle of nowhere, which is saying a lot for Chechnya. Windy roads that led to more windy roads that led to a giant stone gate adorned with sculptures of lions. This was President Ramzan Kadyrov’s palatial estate. We were sat at what looked like the world’s longest seder table: American film crew, beauty queens, and Kadyrovsty on one side; gorgeous and terrified young Russian women on the other. (I was later told this was most likely his harem.) Behind the women stood a wall of press. At the head of the table was a large seat, not quite a throne, but it was obvious who was supposed to sit there. Well, it was obvious to most of us. Howard, our executive producer, plopped down. Handlers attempted to remove him, but he shrugged them off. Our producer was pulling a power move on one of Human Rights Watch’s top human rights violators. Then, Ramzan arrives. He was noticeably shaken—some Jew is in his chair. Howard played it off remarkably well.
“Mr. President, we have saved a seat for you in between two of our most lovely ladies.”
Ramzan didn't speak a lick of English, so his translator told him this. He looked down at the empty chair next to the gorgeous and bubbly Ms. Kenya, and cracked a wry smile. He paused, then laughed an infectious and warm laugh—the dude could turn on the charm—and took a seat. It was my belief that most of these ruthless dudes must have a certain warmth to them because when Ramzan laughed, I felt included. I felt like listening to the guy, like I could trust him. The lunch proceeded well. Good food, great wine, and genial chit-chat. On my way to the bathroom, I got lost and was about to turn a corner when a massive hand lightly grabbed my shoulder. I wheeled around to see an enormous, neckless, goon shaking his head.
He pointed me to the bathroom.
I returned to the table as Ramzan stood up and tapped his glass with his spoon. He gave what sounded like a perfectly sincere speech and punctuated it with his booming laughter. The room burst into applause and shared laughter. The translator then turned to us.
“President Kadyrov wishes you many thanks for coming to Chechnya and using your cameras to show the world how we have much improved through cooperation with Putin. Many thanks to you.” He then turned to our executive producer. “President Kadyrov asks, what in his great land can he offer you to keep Ms. Kenya here in Chechnya to be one of his wives?” The translator started laughing, Ms. Kenya blushed and playfully pushed Ramzan’s shoulder. It was a cute moment. We all laughed, and only sort of because we were afraid not to.
Howard, however, didn't. He wanted, no, needed the last word. He cleared his throat.
“President Kadyrov? In this place?” He laughed. “I dunno, a goat, two horses, two chickens, and a barrel of fish! HA!” He laughed at his own joke, which was more of an insult than a joke because it was incredibly insulting and not at all a joke.
All that went through my head was the story of that AP reporter lady who got exploded for no reason. Here we are, I thought, surely about to be killed for a very good reason—for mocking a warlord in his own house.
The translator shot Howard a pleading look and tried his best.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you.”
Howard just did that “get on with it” motion where you trace a circle with your hand. He knew he had been heard.
The translator cleared his throat. He repeated back what will surely be our death sentence. Every reporter leaned in to their camera, focusing on Ramzan.
I thought I knew what silence was. I do stand-up comedy, and I thought silence was when a joke bombs so hard you can hear an entire audience collectively decide to turn on you. I was wrong. That’s not silence. Silence is when time stops and your heartbeat is so deafeningly loud that you are compelled to pull out your own hair and stuff it in your ears.
Suddenly—laughter. That big booming laugh. It was so loud I thought every glass on the table would shatter like they do in a cartoon about the opera.
We were safe.
We finished our meal. It was fine, but the tone had certainly changed. As we were led out of the compound, I spotted a goat. Fucking Russia, I thought, goats everywhere. I took a picture.
Then, two men rode up on horses... each... carrying... Are those? They were chickens. Finally, a man waddled over, lugging a huge barrel of fish. The thugs placed each of these animals in front of Howard, whose jaw was on the floor. Ramzan turned to him, slapped him on the chest and exploded with laughter.
Only this time the laughter didn’t seem too warm, though, yaknow?